Wednesday, February 1, 2012
Books: Curious Connections
On February 1, 1780 David Porter Jr. was born in Boston. Porter’s father served in the Continental Navy. Two of Porter’s sons, David Farragut and David Dixon Porter, would go on to achieve greatness in the U.S. and Union navies. Porter himself was held prisoner in Tripoli during the Barbary Wars, was the first Commodore of the New Orleans Naval Station and, as captain of USS Essex, all but wiped out the British whaling industry in the South Pacific during the War of 1812. With all that success, Porter was an outspoken leader who was not well liked by his peers or superiors; his unfortunate propensity for speaking the truth made them skittish at best. After what he felt were unjustified reprimands following his pirate hunting success commanding the Mosquito Fleet out of Key West, Porter left the U.S. and took command of the fledgling Mexican navy. This operation would find but little success and Porter eventually returned to his natal country. He died in Turkey in 1843, where he was serving as U.S. Ambassador. He is buried in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
Porter’s brilliant if unstable career is oddly mirrored by a well known seaman from the other side of the pond: Thomas Cochrane. Both found success and then vilification in their countries’ navies. Both moved on to command the maritime forces of rebellious Spanish colonies. And both returned to their countries to take up positions of state rather than turn back to the sea. The two men, according to their biographers, admired and envied one another, even exchanging correspondence on more than one occasion.
These facts in and of themselves stand as curious connections but, to my mind, it gets better. Enter the literary genius who was known as Patrick O’Brian.
O’Brian is often disdainful of Americans in general and the U.S. Navy in particular in his Aubrey/Maturin novels. Two of the nastier intelligencers in the series, Henry Johnson and Louisa Wogan, are from the U.S. Stephen’s beloved Diana is whisked from his grasp by the treacherous Johnson. Jack thinks so little of the U.S. Navy that he asks British women aboard HMS Java if they have been raped by the Americans after they capture the ship. These are just a few highlights. All that said, it is to David Porter – not Thomas Cochrane – that O’Brian turns for inspiration in more than one of his wonderful books.
Anthony Gary Brown addresses this point directly in The Patrick O’Brian Muster Book. Of The Far Side of the World he notes:
In this book O’Brian states his inspiration as the pursuit of USS Essex by HMS Phoebe in 1814; the American intent to disrupt the valuable British whaling trade was real enough, but O’Brian’s plot is almost entirely of his own invention (and Peter Weir’s version of it in his 2003 movie based on the book was largely that director’s own creation).
The pursuit and eventual destruction of Essex by Captain Hillyar’s Phoebe was one of the low points in Porter’s career, despite his huge success in the Great South Sea. He lost a number of officers and men in the battle at Valparaiso Harbor and only barely made it home in a leaky whaling vessel.
Brown also points out that the “battles between English and French surrogates at Moahu” in The Truelove (published as Clarissa Oakes in Britain) were most probably inspired by direct action on Porter’s part. In 1813 Porter and his crews assisted in a mêlée between Typee and Happah tribesmen on the island of Nooaheevah in the Marquesas. The hope was to secure the island itself and eventually the entire chain under U.S. protection but the bloody action eventually came to nothing. Virtually the same situations – right down to a brutal slaughter of natives with cannon and a compliant lady companion for Captain Aubrey – are detailed in The Truelove. The similarities here are even more striking than they are in The Far Side of the World. The ultimate failure of Aubrey’s bid for British control of the island mirrors Porter’s experience.
O’Brian was not only a master story teller but an excellent researcher who knew that fact was usually more interesting than fiction, if told the right way. It’s not surprising that he saw the similarities between his larger-than-life hero Aubrey and David Porter, USN. For me personally, it remains one of those delightfully curious connections that keep me excited about history and literature and writing year after year.
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